11 Unexpected Celebrities Who Guest-Starred on PBS’s Arthur

Why, yes, those are the Backstreet Boys.
Why, yes, those are the Backstreet Boys. / PBS

You’re watching a rerun of PBS’s Arthur with the kids in your life when, suddenly, an elderly bear named “Frank” appears on screen and starts talking about designing a tree house. “Wait, is that actually Frank Gehry, famed architect of the Guggenheim Museum Bilbao and other important structures?” you ask, knowing full well that the kids will not know. (They don’t.)

But you’re right—Frank Gehry really did guest star on an episode of Arthur, and he wasn’t the only one. Over the show’s two dozen seasons, the bespectacled aardvark has rubbed anthropomorphic elbows with many a celebrity. Here are 11 memorable ones.

1. The Backstreet Boys

All five Backstreet Boys starred as themselves in a special musical episode from 2002 titled “It’s Only Rock and Roll.” In it, young Elwood City residents couldn't stop talking about the band’s upcoming concert, which annoyed Francine to the point that she started a counter-cultural band of her own called U Stink. For many viewers in the early 2000s, the characters’ reactions to Nick Carter and his cohorts paralleled their own feelings about the band. And for sheltered viewers who didn’t keep abreast of pop culture and had no idea who the Backstreet Boys were, the episode surely spared them from future embarrassment at school.

2. John Lewis

In the 2018 episode “Arthur Takes a Stand,” Lakewood Elementary School welcomed guest speaker John Lewis, who empowered Arthur to organize a sit-in so the school would agree to let lunch lady Mrs. MacGrady hire a much-needed assistant. (It also turned out that Lewis and Mrs. MacGrady became friends at the March on Washington.)

According to the Los Angeles Times, Lewis took an active role in ensuring that the writers portrayed history accurately and that the artists drew his character, a bear, looked as much like him as possible. When producers showed him one design that looked like “a really cuddly teddy bear,” as executive producer Carol Greenwald described it, "He said, ‘I just don’t look like that.'"

3. Joan Rivers

Joan Rivers guest-starred as Francine’s grandmother on Arthur twice: Once to teach her granddaughter about the true meaning of Yom Kippur, and again to help her cope with her grandfather’s memory loss. "I’ll do anything for PBS," Rivers told Entertainment Weekly in 2012. “[My daughter] Melissa grew up on it, with Sesame Street, so I love that. It sends such good messages to the kids, still gives a positive model, all the clichés are true."

4. Art Garfunkel

After a few months of traveling with his dad (who’s a pilot), Buster returned to Elwood City at the beginning of season 3 and found that his friends had changed a bit. As he navigated those changes, a guitar-playing moose repeatedly popped up and broke the fourth wall to narrate Buster’s feelings via brief, upbeat acoustic tunes. Highlights included “Life can be tough as nails when your friends think you’re a guy who likes to eat snails” and “TV isn’t funny when you’re a sad, sad bunny.” The music was surprisingly good, which was probably not surprising to parents who watched the episode with their kids and immediately realized that the mysterious moose was voiced by Art Garfunkel.

5. Matt Damon

Matt Damon played a caricature of himself in a season 11 episode called “The Making of Arthur,” in which Damon invited kids to film their own videos and submit them for a contest. Arthur didn't win, but Damon was impressed enough that he decided to produce a show based on Arthur’s life. In a twist that may have gone over the heads of Arthur’s youngest fans, the episode ended with Damon filming the show's theme song sequence. As for how Damon got the gig in the first place: The actor and Arthur head writer Peter Hirsch went to Harvard together.

6. Alex Trebek

Unlike other celebrities on this list, Alex Trebek didn’t appear as himself on Arthur. Instead, the beloved Jeopardy! host voiced Alex Lebek, host of the popular TV program RiddleQuest, which Arthur ended up competing on. It wasn’t the only time Trebek spoofed his Jeopardy! role on a kids’ show—he also voiced Alan Quebec, host of a game show called Super Stumpers, in an episode of Rugrats.

7. Michelle Kwan

After almost an entire episode of Francine’s griping about having lost the Athlete of the Year award to Jenna, whom she considered inferior, Michelle Kwan showed up to teach her a lesson about good sportsmanship. She appeared to Francine in a dream where she skated literal rings around her until Francine finally admitted that figure skating “isn’t as wimpy as it looks.” The self-reflective moment of growth happened the next day, when Francine apologized to Jenna for being such a brat.

8. Philip Seymour Hoffman

Philip Seymour Hoffman brought “William Fillmore Toffman” to life with characteristic enthusiasm in a 2009 episode of Arthur called “No Acting Please.” Toffman is a hotshot director who arrived in Elwood City to stage a community play called “It Began With a Whistle.” If theater-savvy viewers couldn’t already identify Hoffman based on his voice and his character’s name, passing mentions of Toffman’s past credits might have done the trick: True East (Hoffman starred in True West on Broadway), and Jimmy Hopped the C Train (Hoffman directed the original Off-Broadway production of Jesus Hopped the A Train).

9. Yo-Yo Ma

In season 4’s “My Music Rules,” Yo-Yo Ma brought his cello to Elwood City for a library concert, where saxophonist Joshua Redman was also booked to perform. This prompted the kids to imagine a WWE-inspired classical-versus-jazz face-off. The concert ended up being much less WrestleMania and much more children’s-concert-at-a-local-library, but the vision of Yo-Yo Ma playing the cello as a jacked rabbit in spandex is what really sticks with you.

10. Jane Lynch

Arthur’s 22nd season kicked off in 2019 with the matrimonial union of Mr. Ratburn and a previously unknown character named Patrick—and the internet was so busy celebrating this lovely “gay rat wedding” that Jane Lynch’s presence in the episode went mostly overlooked. Lynch played Mr. Ratburn’s sister Patty, whom Arthur and friends accidentally assumed was his fiancée.

11. Fred Rogers

Mister Rogers stayed with Arthur’s family during the season 2 episode “Arthur Meets Mister Rogers,” which focused on Arthur’s embarrassment about still liking Mister Rogers' Neighborhood when his friends considered it a show for little kids. Rogers, in his characteristic cardigan and calm voice, reassures Arthur that “real friends don’t make fun of real friends.” A couple years later, Arthur (in puppet form) appeared on an episode of Rogers’s show.